Last (2015) year, the Australian Tamil community lost Arun Vijayarani, who was a well-regarded Tamil writer and community worker. As a humble woman, she preferred to remain out of the limelight. However, the celebration of her life since her passing has served as an ideal to many in the Tamil community of a life well-lived.
Although considered the longest surviving language in the world, Tamil has required concerted efforts from many to sustain the importance of its literary value and prevent it from sliding into extinction. Vijarayani was one such individual driven by an inordinate willpower. She never regarded her own work as making any special contribution to Tamil literature. Yet, she strove to highlight Tamil’s majesty among languages, whether it be through shining a light upon lesser known Tamil writers, encouraging young Tamil children around her to embrace their mother tongue or conducting Tamil writers’ festivals.
Vijayarani was born on 16 March 1954 in Urumpirai, in the Jaffna district of Sri Lanka. Her parents were the celebrated artist, photographer and textiles designer K T Selvadurai and his wife Sivapackium. Her upbringing was primarily in Colombo where her family was based, growing up with much affection from her three brothers and three sisters.
Vijayarani was well-regarded as a bright determined student, shining at her alma maters, Saiva Maingayar Kazhagam (Wellawatte) and later at Colombo Hindu College (Ratmalana). Her interest was mainly in the arts and literature, derived from her father’s professional life, and her own avid reading and music studies. In those times, lesser significance was placed on a young girl’s formal education. Instead, women were expected to play a more domestic role in society. In many ways, Vijarayani actively defied this expectation. As a student, she spent most of her time reading and writing. Her work began to attract the attention of some of her teachers. At a very young age of 16, her first short story was published in a student magazine, after a teacher selected it amidst several other submissions. The selection of her story drew criticism and negative remarks from fellow students. In spite of this, Vijayarani proudly recalled this story as her entry into the writers’ world and the beginning of a long journey of literary pursuits.
After entering the writing world, Vijayarani Selvadurai was established as a household name. Since then, her writings continued to be the hallmark of her life. Vijayarani’s writing was incredibly advanced for its time, better classified as modern fiction. Both her style and themes were not commonly found in other writers of her generation. Over the years, her writings appeared in various Tamil journals, magazines and newspapers including Virakesari, Thinakural, Mallikai, Akkini Kunchu , Thozhi and Marabu published around the world.
In many ways, Vijayarani was a role model to many young Tamil women for much of her life. As a budding writer and radio announcer in Sri Lanka, she stood for the ability of women to accomplish themselves. This was particularly noteworthy in a patriarchal society, in which women were afforded significant respect but also expected to play a specific domestic role. Her writing did not necessarily advocate for any revolution in regards to the place women held in society. Her aims were more literary. She sought to give a voice to women, an opportunity for stories to be told from the feminine perspective and to concentrate on the experiences of womanhood. Her short stories related tales of a young girl’s quest for marriage, another woman’s views on fidelity, and another’s personal struggles during pregnancy.
Throughout her life, she esteemed the late Kannadasan as one of the greatest writers and lyricists of the Tamil language and as a literary role model. In this regard, Vijayarani was inspired by simplicity of language and creativity in content that conveyed a depth of insight, and strove to reflect these qualities in her own writings. In her own words, she did not take up her pen seeking fame or riches but as the great poet Subramaniya Bharathi suggested, the pen enabled her to rise up against injustice and find happiness in that feat.
She also had an extraordinary talent as a radio announcer at a time when radio broadcasts played a pivotal role in shaping social opinions. These kinds of programmes drew Tamil audiences from around the world. At the age of 20, she founded on Radio Ceylon the popular programme “Visalatchi Paati”. The series ran for 25 weeks in which the character of Visalatchi Paati comically gave advice, speaking in the classic Jaffna Tamil. It was an acclaimed satirical comedy with its focus on social reform and the role of women. She also co-wrote a radio play about troubles that begin at home, which was later aired as a television series on Rupavahini titled ‘Thunai’.
Whilst a young woman, the positions she advocated for the equality of her gender attracted plenty of mail sent to the family home in Colombo. Some letters praised her whilst others were scathing in their criticism. Vijayarani noted that she relished receiving the critiques, which enabled her to grow both as a person and a writer. Concerns were raised whether this brash young woman would ever get married, even as she had rejected the idea herself. However, in July 1980, she married Nagalingam Arunagiri, a union which would span 35 years of true love and devotion to each other.
After marriage, she moved to the Middle East to join her husband working in Saudi Arabia. They later had their first son Aathitan in 1981, before the young family moved to the UK. During this time, Vijayarani cultivated her family role as a supportive wife and loving mother. Yet, she continued her writing in a lesser way. These were tumultuous times for her fellow Sri Lankan Tamils. With Tamil journalism coming under increasing threat in Sri Lanka, the ability of writers like Vijayarani, who continued to write from miles away from their home country, can be looked back upon as a significant means of upholding Tamil pride. During her time in London, she also had the opportunity to interview mega filmstar Rajni Kanth.
In 1988, the couple were blessed with a second son Ajanthan. Arun and Vijayarani decided to once again shift their lives to the other side of the world, deciding to migrate to Australia. They arrived in Melbourne in 1989, to join most of Vijayarani’s siblings and their families. Shortly after her arrival, she continued her writing and community work amidst a growing population of Tamils. She became the cultural secretary of the Australian Federation of Tamils and an editor of the Australia Murasu.
Despite having penned hundreds of stories, she was not concerned that her works be published in book form. However, in 1991, with the support of her husband, family and fellow writer L. Murugapoopathy, a collection of her short stories titled Kannikathanangal was published by Chennai Puthakalayam. In those early years, the Tamil community worked very hard to celebrate artistic achievements. Each Bharatha Natyam recital or music festival or book launch was a significant milestone for the entire community. Vijayarani’s book release was a rare event and importantly, much of Melbourne’s Tamil community rallied behind her efforts.
In Melbourne, Vijayarani also instigated a number of community initiatives driven by her love for her Sri Lankan, Tamil and Hindu heritages. In the 1990s, she was the driving force behind weekly bhajans for her extended family and a wider circle of the local Tamil community. For years afterward, she continued to host and participate in bhajans through her membership of the Mill Park Sai Centre including the annual New Year’s Day and Saraswati Pooja bhajans held at the Arunagiri residence.
For the entirety of her time in Melbourne, she hosted numerous radio programmes. Audiences across Australia heard her speak on broadcasters such as Inba Thamizh Vaanoli, Vaanamutham and Australia Tamil Broadcasting Corporation. She spoke on topics such as the the philosophical overtones of Kannadasan’s film songs to Tamil women’s literature to family values.
Whilst her public profile grew under the name of Arun Vijayarani, she remained steadfastly humble and never sought fame. However, she found further avenues to pursue her passions. She wrote short stories, submitted contributions for local Tamil newspapers such as Uthayam, conducted radio interviews, busied herself with the Australian Tamil Literary Society including serving as its president, delivered speeches, organised writers’ festivals, advocated for her culture and argued for the important role women should play in society. On a holiday to London, she was invited to speak on Deepam TV about the clash of cultures for the Tamil diaspora.
Amidst her several traits, morality, authenticity and charity were characteristics she both embodied and admired in others. Vijayarani was characterised by compassion, and placed great import on community service. This included public community work such as her involvement in the Ceylon Students’ Education Fund, an organisation which provides financial assistance to disadvantaged students in Sri Lanka and of which she also served as president. However, she also privately undertook several unsung charitable deeds many of which have only come to light since her passing.
Notwithstanding her efforts in the literary field and her community service, Vijayarani was a woman who placed utmost importance on her family. For much of her Melbourne life, she was nestled in a homestead in Ivanhoe in very close proximity to the family she held so dear. Although her health had not been perfect for some time, she continued in her own way, handling the home for her husband and children whilst being employed for several years, appropriately at a women’s social services organisation.
Vijayarani passed away on 13 December 2015, surrounded by her family. Since her passing, much has been written about her accomplishments primarily by fellow writers who both knew her well, or instead admired her work without knowing her personally. A month after her death, several Tamil writers banded together to release Vijayatharakai, publishing a series of tributes. She leaves behind many legacies for all to remember her, through both her literary work, community work and her family. Vijayarani is survived by her husband, sons, daughter-in-law, grandson and her large extended family.